I think it may have been sometime in the 1970s — and I’m being as half-assed as I possibly can here, in keeping with my theme — that the term “unauthorized” became sort of cool. The authorized version: that was what the Man gave you. You didn’t want that. You wanted the illicit, illegitimate, sniggering-behind-your-hand version. Not the truth exactly, but something that smelled a bit like it
Intro to Kill Your Idols: The Unauthorized Biography of Albert Goldman
Ten great unauthorized rock biographies
1) Hammer of the Gods: The Led Zeppelin Saga by Stephen Davis (multiple editions, 1985)
2) Everybody Wants Some: The Van Halen Saga by Ian Christe (Wiley, 2007)
3) The Secret History of Kate Bush (And the Strange Art of Pop) by Fred Vermorel (Omnibus Press, 1983)
4) The Wicked Ways of Malcolm McLaren by Craig Bromberg (Harper, 1989)
5) Morrissey & Marr: The Severed Alliance by Johnny Rogan (Omnibus Press, 1992)
6) Elvis: What Happened? by Red West, Sonny West, and Dave Hebler, with Steve Dunleavy (Ballantine, 1977)
7) Enrique Iglesias: An Unauthorized Biography by Elina Furman and Leah Furman (St. Martin’s, 2000)
8) Get Back: The Unauthorized Chronicle of the Beatles’ Let It Be Disaster by Doug Sulpy and Ray Schweighart (St. Martin’s, 1999)
9) Elvis by Albert Goldman (McGraw-Hill, 1981)
10) The Lives of John Lennon by Albert Goldman (William Morrow, 1988)
A market emerged, and books, here and there, began to advertise their unauthorizedness. Soon books about rock music, which was the sound of the kids, etc., absolutely had to be unauthorized, otherwise what was the point? Give us the action! And so he was born, our hero — a dreamer of dreams, a peddler of scurrilities, the worst researcher in the world: the unauthorized rock biographer.
As unauthorized rock biographers go, Mick Wall — whose W.A.R.: The Unauthorized Biography of William Axl Rose (St. Martins Press, 352 pages, $26.95) debuted this past week — is impeccably credentialed. In 1991, having displeased the band with some tactless journalism, he was called out, by name, in Guns N’ Roses’ bloated blooz-rant “Get in the Ring.” “You punks in the press,” burps Axl Rose in a spoken word section, while the guitars get surly, “that wanna start shit by printing lies instead of the things we said . . . That means you, Mick Wall! . . . Fuck you! Suck my fucking dick!” Fixed immortally in the zodiac of Axl’s paranoia — not bad for a writer from Kerrang! magazine. “Suck my fucking dick!” You don’t get much more unauthorized than that.
Then again, when Johnny Rogan was researching his Smiths history Morrissey and Marr: The Severed Alliance, he trespassed so deeply into the Moz-zone that the vengeful singer wished aloud to a passing newspaperman that Rogan would be killed in a highway pile-up. Asked about this comment a few weeks later, Morrissey seemed to have had a change of heart: now, he said, he wanted Rogan to die in a hotel fire. The relationship between the unauthorized rock biographer and his subject has ever been strained.
Father of lies
“Is he really dead?”, Phil Spector is said to have asked upon learning of the passing of Albert Goldman. “Is he really dead? Make sure he’s really dead.” A mordant epitaph for the man who had produced, in 1981’s Elvis and 1988’s The Lives of John Lennon, two works of persistent, near-magical malignancy. Drive a stake through his fat heart. Nail him to the grave. Let there be no possibility of illusion or (worse) revival. Tonight, at last, the village can sleep.
Because Goldman, who died in 1994 with his biography of Jim Morrison unfinished (hallelujah!), really was a kind of nightmare. Ladies and Gentlemen — Lenny Bruce!, his 1971 breakthrough book, gave no hint of the dizzying animus he was preparing to unleash on rock-and-roll. His literary lineage could be traced back a hundred years, to a time when the binges and brothel-crawls of New York–society types were gleefully recorded in scandal sheets like Town Topics and The Weekly Rake. His aesthetic forebear was Kenneth Anger, whose pioneering Hollywood Babylon had ministered candidly to an atavistic public need for sexual/chemical slander and crime-scene photos. His rival in notoriety and bestsellerdom was Kitty Kelley, perfumed author of 1986’s His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra (Mob ties, suicide attempts, scrambled eggs inhaled off a hooker’s breasts). Still, Goldman was one of a kind: a professor of English at Columbia — 10-dollar words, quotes from Chaucer and all — whose mind was in the gutter.
The books were huge and tireless. The prose style was multi-valved, gusting from rock-crit hyperbole through debauched Mailer-ese to straight porno (“a group of girls would strip down to their panties and wrestle while Elvis stared out his eyes with a rocklike hard-on pressing up against his underwear”); the dominant tone, however, was a poncey, parodistic voice that seemed to be his own. “Diurnal acid dropping,” he wrote in The Lives of John Lennon, “produces an effect rather like XTC, the ‘love drug.’ Hence, instead of mental pinwheels, the tripper feels himself bound in an affectionate communion with everything he sees, like Titania embracing an ass.”